Agdz is a small town in the valley of the Draa river on the edge of the Sahara in Southern Morocco. There's water in it, which is a dramatic change from the usual dry river bed, and when we saw it we both did a "double take". A couple of days at the brilliant campsite, adjacent to the mud brick Kasbah currently being restored, and we were refreshed and ready for the off.
Climbing out of the river valley, on the old road out of the Sahara North towards Marrakech, we climbed and turned up a steep corkscrew of a road. At 1600metres, we stopped to have lunch, and to enjoy the silence and the view from a deserted lay-by -right up in the middle of nowhere, hanging over the valley. A lunch stop can be very quiet, traffic is so light down here.
No sooner had I switched the engine off, than a local appeared! Not so deserted then...
He had dates for sale, and asked for any ladies and children's clothing. These people are exceptionally poor, and yet so cheerful. Sue said "Don't be so soft, we can't feed the whole of Morocco" but anyway, we provided him with olives, bread, 5 litres of water and a pair of jeans -and off he went behind some rocks, very pleased.
Having finished our half of lunch, the trouble started.
I turned the ignition key- nothing. Puzzled, I tried again. Less than nothing. Some dash lights on, the preheater and ignition lights not being amongst them!
"Oh gosh, well I never did" I said to myself. Maybe they were not the exact words...
After a quick check I found we had lights, indicators and so on, but nothing on the ignition side. Just to be sure, I hauled the "house" battery out of it's hole and swapped it with the starter battery. The starter battery isn't easily accessible, but once you've scraped off that layer of skin down your arm you didn't really need, then you can reach the live terminal at the back. Try again- still nothing.
I looked at all the fuses, none blown. Lifting the bonnet, I checked the ones Fiat decided to hide in an inaccessible box, in the dark, where they cant be disturbed- or inspected- without removing yet more unnecessary skin, this time from the back of your hand. Why do designers think we should be skinless, boneless and double jointed, with eyes that can swivel and focus through 360 deg? Gollum would make a great mechanic.
I then checked the connections to the starter motor, and the more I checked the less I found. Bugger.
I was thinking, whilst scratching my chin with a 10mm open ended.
At my shoulder a voice, in French, asked me if I was having problems- it was the date seller, fresh from his half of our lunch, and a friend. No idea where he popped up from.
Things now started happening. They insisted on helping, and insisted it was the battery, then did everything i'd just done but twice as fast. They certainly looked busy. Still nothing.
A huge truck arrived, and a rapid conversation in Berber resulted in the driver repeating all of the usual steps, whilst his truck rumbled and growled in the background. Then, he checked all the cables again, and scraped the skin off the back of his hand to get to those bloody (!) fuses.
All the time, Sue had been sitting reading in the motorhome, having decided there was nothing she could usefully add. Her peace was shattered when the truck driver decided to try to bump us off in reverse down the layby! Very scary- this is steep country. Sue's eyes were like saucers, and her mouth dropped open in alarm.
It didn't work and the driver jumped back in his truck, waved cheerfully and silence returned to the mountain.
My two companions scratched their chins with a selection of my tools.
Then the date seller made an executive decision, pulled out his smartphone, and yelled down the line for some minutes in Berber. Yes, smartphone- the Moroccans love their phones. With villages being many miles apart, technology must have made a huge difference to their lives. Satisfied, he invited me to sit down and enjoy the view as the problem with the battery, he still insisted it was the battery, would soon be solved. I got oranges out, and we all sat looking out over the incredibly rugged steep and arid valley slopes.
From time to time, a vehicle would stop, and the date seller sprang into action with his wares. He wasn't doing bad, either.
An hour later, a mechanic turned up. He'd got the local schoolteacher, who spoke some English, to give him a lift up the mountain. Clever idea, and we could now have a discussion of sorts.
The mechanic quickly decided it wasn't either battery. How? By bridging two of my beautiful Sheffield-made spanners across the terminals! A 2 foot high shower of sparks must mean the battery's ok.
My test meter isn't as spectacular, but it clearly wasn't masculine enough.
So, we re-fitted both batteries with their shiny, newly cratered terminals, and the mechanic decided we would push the motorhome backwards, out of the protective lay-by, and into the road - then shove it down the mountain to try a bump start.
I had grave misgivings about this. Very grave.
The practical part of the Moroccan driving test examines the candidate's ability to take a blind bend on the wrong side of the road, whilst having a conversation with a person in the back seat. And all this, whilst wearing a Berber headdress which obscures all but the nose. The driver absolutely must take the bend with 50% of the vehicle in the wrong lane.
I forgot to warn saucer-eyed Sue, who bobbed up again inside the motorhome when she realised she was being propelled across both lanes backwards, with a view of the valley floor straight down through the windscreen. She looked a bit bothered- more than a bit.
After 20m of trying downhill, it was clear that it wasn't going to work, so our mechanic announced in French that we would go back to town. "Ok, but what about the motorhome?" I enquired, confused.
"DANS le camping car!" he announced, as if to an idiot.
The date seller and his mate disappeared back into the rocks. The schoolteacher was nowhere to be seen.Should I have read something into this?
I did a quick risk assessment in my head.
We will be freewheeling a 4 ton motorhome down a mountain. Ok.
We are left hand drive, ok, but that means I'm closest to the edge. Hmmm.
The road is like a slalom course, and bends tend to be 60deg plus. Ok
We have useless brakes without an engine-powered servo. Fine.
It's something like 10kilometres to town. Brilliant.
Stop thinking- it's getting scary.
Say nothing to Sue, and she'll never notice.
I climbed into the passenger seat, and the motorhome slid forward silently, gathering pace at an alarming rate.
Jeeeesus, part of the barrier's missing , hard left turn with ignition on in 4th gear.
Oh my God, 60 deg right tucked up against the armco at 70kph.
A bit without a corner, probably 100 metres but sharply downwards. I prefer the corners, this just makes us go much faster and more out of control.
Scores more corners probably followed, and i believe we took some of them on our side of the road, but i had my eyes closed a lot of the time.
My stomach was thrown right, left, right - I had a good grip on the door handle, but I've no idea why- what difference would it have made as we plummeted over the edge upside down?
A straight, and we were accelerating up behind a pickup travelling slower than us. "Merde, merde !!" the mechanic yelled.
We sped down the hill -left, right, up and down, whilst the mechanic yelled and tried really hard to run right over the pickup . Perhaps the driver realised that the Foreign lunatic in the uncannily quiet motorhome might have passed the Moroccan Advanced Driving course , and was capable of anything. He went left along an adjacent track.
Travelling at almost 85 kph, our 4 ton missile sped up a long gradient, and straight on over the top. Another 5 mins of downhill slalom, and we were back in the river valley, hurtling through a roundabout on the outskirts of Adgz town.
Following the highway code to the letter, the mechanic nonchalantly turned the hazard flashers off.... then suddenly braked, turned sharp right scattering a group of schoolgirls, then sharp left and rumbled to a halt right outside his workshop. I looked suitably amazed. He looked at me as if to say " nah, done it all before" but I could see he was very chuffed with himself, and we'd had a pretty free run too.
Best of all, we weren't even a bit dead in the bottom of a rocky valley......
Whilst our new best mate and his brother attacked the motorhome, I unclenched my butt cheeks and chatted with a group of onlookers, who always turn up to watch something interesting.
Incredibly cheerful, Moroccans have to be amongst the most amiable people we've ever had the pleasure to meet.
The schoolteacher, newly re-appeared, asked me "are you alone?" The audience listened attentively.
"No no, my wife is inside -but she's a very quiet woman" I replied.
It's not really true, but I don't have enough combined French, Arabic or Berber for the truth.
They all moved as one, and tried to peer through the windscreen to get a look at the quiet Western woman, but thankfully they couldn't see what I could- Sue was half way down a very large glass of red!
It might not have been her first. Perhaps she had noticed some of the corners, too.
After shaking hands with half a dozen additional onlookers who wanted to know
" where are you going, where have you come from, how much did the motorhome cost and- most important- do you like Morocco? -the repair job was complete. A replacement cable to the starter motor, and a lot of undoing, and tightening back up.
The crowd, the mechanic and his brother all shook my hand again, grinned broadly at the pantomime and waved, and we headed back to the campsite we set off from earlier in the day!
Returning up the mountain to continue the journey next morning, we recorded 14.3Ks from the workshop back to the lay-by. Some slalom.
The cost of repairs etc ? Sorry, almost forgot.
Under £50 all in. $100 NZ.
I mean, where else can you get a mechanic, breakdown callout, an audience, repairs and two pyrotechnic battery tests-with a Wall of Death ride thrown in - for that price!!!!
Give me Morocco every time.
I hope you enjoyed the read